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Virtual reality is back

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The Oculus Rift is a headset viewing device that is currently in development by a small company recently acquired by Facebook and based in Los Angeles. Soon after it was first demoed to the public late 2012, it single-handedly heralded the return of virtual reality (VR) to the tech world, spurring copycats like Sony’s Project Morpheus for the PlayStation 4. After having the opportunity to play with a Rift for the past few weeks, I am convinced of its potential to dramatically change the way we interact online in the coming decade and to create immersive experiences for both work and play.

It is a mind-blowing experience to put on the Oculus Rift for the first time. Having been disappointed by 3D cinematic displays and the gimmicky Nintendo 3DS in the past, I came in expecting the Rift to be a curious novelty and nothing more. That feeling disappeared a few seconds into my first tech demo as I found myself reaching my hands out in a futile attempt to touch the desk that appeared to be right in front of me. Pretty soon, I found myself flying through space, going on fantastical rollercoaster rides and falling from great heights. As I found myself eventually staring at a large virtual projection of my computer desktop surrounded on all sides by what appears to be the infinite cosmos, I thought to myself, “the future we were promised is finally here.”

Still, it does feel like we have walked down this very path many times before only to be met with disappointment. Stereo-vision displays have been with us for decades. Thirty years before the lukewarm success of the Nintendo 3DS, the video game giant tried to sell us the horrific monstrosity that was the Virtual Boy. Movie studios and TV manufacturers spent a good chunk of the past five years trying to push for 3D movies before raising the white flag last year. After decades of false starts and broken dreams, why is VR finally on the verge of changing the way we interact with our computers?

It all boils down to one word: presence.

Presence is a term that VR enthusiasts like to use to describe the feeling of full immersion that one can get from using the Rift. It is a momentary sense that, as you turn your head to survey your surroundings, you are actually where the virtual reality wants you to believe you are. The secret to creating presence, it turns out, is not just to create 3D stereo vision, it is to accurately respond to the user’s head movements. Even though the graphics found in Rift tech demos are clearly computer generated and often less sophisticated than those found in mainstream video game titles today, the Oculus Rift’s ability to precisely track your head motion and create a one-to-one mapping of that motion to your virtual avatar creates an overpowering sensation of presence. It is a sensation that must be felt to be understood.

It is clear that VR is finally on the cusp of greatness. The experience provided by the present prototypes are impressive enough that there is an immediate addressable market for them amongst gamers who would be willing to pay for professionally created content for the device even with its present limitations. Star Citizen, a futuristic space combat simulator designed for the Oculus Rift, raised a record $50 million through crowdfunding. As the display and motion tracking technologies evolve in parallel to the smartphone market that drives them, future VR headsets will have more believable graphics and smoother response rates. At that point, the applications will rapidly expand beyond the initial gaming audience: Imagine the possibilities for virtual tourism, architectural and mechanical design, online retail and countless other fields.

For a long time, years of disappointment had relegated virtual reality research and experimentation to the confines of academia in places like Stanford’s Virtual Reality Lab. In creating its Rift prototype and demonstrating that we can achieve presence in an affordable package, Oculus and its founder Palmer Luckey sent a shockwave through the industry. We now know that the technology is ready and its explosive long-term implications are clear. It will take hard work and dedicated engineering to experiment and figure out the best practices for creating immersive experiences, but there is now a sense of direction and momentum in the industry that had not existed for a long time.

Like the Internet and the smartphone, online virtual worlds will create new platforms on which entirely new services can be created. In a tech industry where the word “innovation” is growing stale and most startup ideas are closer to micro-optimizations and slight improvements in efficiency than actually disruption, the long-awaited coming of immersive virtual reality is, more than mobile apps and food delivery services, the most promising candidate to give rise to the next Google. The first company to figure out the right formula for building an online virtual world will hold the key to the successor to the modern text-based web. It is an exciting time to be involved with VR.

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Raven Jiang '15 is a senior majoring in Computer Science. He grew up in Singapore and continues to use metric units. Having grown up with Asimov and Clarke, he lives in the future more than he does the present. You can contact Raven at [email protected]